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Opinion

Local Editorial: D.C. Council still stalling on elder abuse

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Opinion,Local Editorial

Last March, the daughter of the late D.C. Councilwoman Hilda Mason told the Office on Aging's Elder Abuse Prevention Committee that even her politically connected mother and multimillionaire stepfather became victims of neglect and financial exploitation at the hands of court-approved "conservators" who pilfered their fortune while forcing them to live in squalor.

The District's Adult Protective Services failed to protect her parents and still fails to protect vulnerable seniors, Carolyn Nicholas, president of Advocates for Elder Justice, testified.

As The Washington Examiner reported last year, Nicholas has been pleading with current council members to amend the Adult Protective Services Act to bring the District law in line with other states' best practices. But they're still dragging their feet.

In February, Council member Marion Barry, D-Ward 8, introduced a bill in memory of his old friend and political ally. The Charles and Hilda Mason Elder Abuse Clarification and Expansion Act of 2013 clarifies the definition of elder abuse and increases the penalties for preying on vulnerable seniors.

Guardians or conservators are only supposed to be appointed for people who do not have other plans in place when they become physically or mentally incapacitated. But D.C. Superior Court judges have overridden seniors' wishes, assigning "representatives" to people who have already designated a family member, friend or attorney to handle their affairs when they became frail or incapacitated. Court-appointed guardians and conservators have total control over their wards' persons and property, but some are completely unsupervised, with no requirement to submit to outside audits or even file periodic accountings with the court for how they spent assets it took a lifetime to accumulate.

With such absolute power and little or no oversight by the courts or the city, abuse is inevitable. "Many court-appointed attorneys, guardians and/or conservators have in fact become nothing more than predators," Nicholas told The Examiner.

Barry's bill, which has been co-sponsored by Council members Anita Bonds, D-at large, Yvette Alexander, D-Ward 7, and Jim Graham, D-Ward 1, would make financial abuse of the elderly a felony punishable by a $10,000 fine and up to 15 years in prison, and allow elderly victims to sue for restitution. It would also prevent those convicted of exploiting seniors by "deception, intimidation, misrepresentation, fraud or undue influence" from inheriting their victims' estates.

Three months later, Barry's bill is still sitting in the Judiciary Committee because Chairman Tommy Wells has not scheduled a hearing. What is he waiting for?

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